TV review: Sinbad
FORT Rinella rises imposingly above the gorgeous aquamarine Mediterranean in the Maltese city of Kalkara, where it has stood guard on this rugged coastline for many centuries.
Deep inside its battlements, we are sitting in a splendidly atmospheric eighth century bar called the Stinking Camel. This stygian hostelry is illuminated by burning torches and ornate antique lamps.
Plush red drapes – all decorated with a picture of the same camel – hang from the walls. In one corner, an assorted band of brothers and sisters are huddled round a table, plotting their latest adventure.
Half-close your eyes and you are transported back 12 centuries, until the harsh voice of an assistant director rudely interrupts your reveries. “Anyone whose mobile phone goes off on set will be taken out and shot!”
Today Fort Rinella is playing host not to troops but to thespians. We are on the set of Sinbad, Sky1’s mega-budget new version of the classic tale from The Arabian Nights, which begins tonight.
No expense has been spared on this handsome production, which cost a reported £14 million. It is easy to see why it is Sky’s most expensive ever domestic drama commission. The crew have been filming in Malta for ten months, and the results of their efforts are undeniably epic.
In the opening episode, written by Jack Lothian (Ashes To Ashes, Shameless), Sinbad inadvertently brings about the death of his beloved older brother. As a consequence, he is banished by his powerful grandmother (Janet Suzman) from his home town of Basra and cursed to live forever on the high seas, unable to spend more than one cycle of the sun on land at any one time.
Quite by chance, he takes command of a ship called The Providence and has to lead a motley crew – including a taciturn Norwegian strongman, Gunnar (Elliot Cowan from Lost In Austen), a cunning jewel thief, Rina (Marama Corlet from The Devil’s Double), a fierce aristocrat, Nala (Estella Daniels), an oddball Cook (Junix Inocian), and the unworldly ship’s doctor, Anwar (Dimitri Leonidas from Grange Hill) – on all sorts of weird and wonderful adventures. Over 13 episodes, Sinbad’s team have their hands full fighting all manner of terrifying CGI monsters.
Much rests on the shoulders of the actor playing the title role, and young Elliot Knight, who was just 20 when he was whisked out of drama school in Manchester to play the part, more than lives up to expectations. He is a raw mixture of passion, panache and pectorals.
During a pause in filming, the actor recalls the moment he was told he had landed the role. “I was actually auditioning for a play called Stags And Hens at my drama school, and I was doing a terrible Liverpudlian accent. I’d had four auditions for Sinbad when I got the phone call. I was in the Trafford Centre in Manchester, and I screamed very loudly. Then I ran outside and I screamed some more.”
The actor reckons he has been preparing for this role since childhood. “It was like my part-time job as a kid to be an adventurer… in my head. I used to sword-fight in the garden and in the park – with my Nan, of all people, with my Nan who can barely walk! I used to make her run around, and I’d go around destroying these trees and cones and stuff. And then she’d hobble around and pick them all up so I could do it all again.”
Fantasy shows such as Sinbad are blossoming in these arid economic times – look at the huge popularity of escapist dramas such as Game Of Thrones, Primeval and Merlin. Inocian, 61, who hails from the Philippines, reflects that during a recession we like nothing better than to immerse ourselves in a fantasy universe. “This series is all about magic and monsters. It’s probably something to do with the recession. More people are staying in and watching TV. People just want to lose themselves in another world. Shows like this take you out of your present situation and into a fantasy world. It’s just a great ride.”
Knight agrees. “I think there are always times when people want to get out of reality, because sometimes it sucks and it’s difficult. I think not just fantasy, but drama in general plays such a huge part. We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of drama in society today – especially in this economic climate.
“It’s very important not just to think you need to eat and drink and sleep. You need to feed your heart and your mind and your soul as well. That’s getting a little bit deep, but I hope that Sinbad helps people in that sense and that it’s a place they can go. It’s an adventure that they can live. It’s something they can really warm to as they become part of the gang.”
We keep returning to the myth of Sinbad. Clearly there is something in this legend of the archetypal hero that we find compelling. Cowan, 35, reckons that this abiding yarn conforms to Joseph Campbell’s idea of The Hero With A Thousand Faces – Star Wars is based on that, too.
“I love the idea of the hero’s journey, the search for the elixir of knowledge, and then the homecoming. That applies in a play like Henry V, too. It’s a universal story that will last for the rest of time. To be part of that great history is very exciting.”
Leonidas, 24, also cites the example of George Lucas’s immense, iconic cycle of intergalactic myths. “The Star Wars model fits the group of characters we have in Sinbad. My character, for instance, is the brains of the boat – he is C-3PO, but not as shiny. Every viewer will have someone they can root for. The characters are not perfect. They are all flawed – there is an anti-hero element in all of them.”
This Sinbad is also a classic rites of passage story, as the central character grows from impetuous boy to imperious man. Knight says: “What I like about our version now is that it’s not just about a hero, it’s about a boy who becomes a man. He definitely grows a lot, he learns a lot about himself.
“This is the reason why I think it will appeal to people of a younger age too; it shows that you don’t have to be a hero to do all these things. It’s about someone who’s not accepted socially, someone who people never expect to amount to anything, someone who just doesn’t feel like he fits in. Everyone can relate to that.”
If so, Sinbad has all kinds of potential. “Someone has already brought up the idea of a Cook doll, carrying a leg of lamb, some garlic bulbs and lots of pots and pans,” says Inocian. “It would be so weird to have an action figure of myself. I told my son about it, and he laughed. I said to him, ‘Don’t laugh – that’s your Christmas present!’”
Sinbad begins on Sky1 tonight, 7pm
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